The struggle against Israeli apartheid in the West Bank faces its greatest obstacle in the people who claim to be its legitimate representatives: the Palestinian Authority (PA). Through the so-called peace process that created the PA—the Oslo Accords signed by Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin between 1993 and 1995—the nationalist project of constructing an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories was transformed into a new means of Palestinian oppression.
Under the Accords, Arafat and the PLO agreed to recognise Israel, guarantee its security and renounce the armed struggle for Palestinian liberation with which the PLO had long been identified. In return, the PLO would be granted a bifurcated Palestinian mini-state alongside Israel: the so-called two-state solution.
Critics were quick to point out that the PA was neither Palestinian nor an authority: Israel had control over security, borders, trade and a host of other functions typically carried out by a state, and much of the new body’s revenue was dependent on international donors in the West and throughout the Arab world.
The PA retains full civilian and security control over just 18 percent of the West Bank (a section of the territory called Area A); Israel maintains security control over 22 percent (Area B) in which the PA administers education, health and the economy. Sixty percent of the West Bank (Area C) remains under Israeli control.
Arafat and the PLO justified the creation of the PA as an interim governing body until an independent Palestinian state could be established. In reality, the PA has provided a more efficient way for Israel to achieve its strategic goal of controlling the occupied Palestinian territories.
The PA has maintained, courtesy of international aid from the US and the EU, one of the largest per capita police forces in the world to suppress the Palestinians on behalf of Israel. (The PA receives approximately $US400 million annually from the US alone, much of which goes toward supporting its 83,000 security personnel.) Through this police state, the PA has carried out the systematic surveillance, imprisonment, torture and targeted assassination of any forces deemed a threat to Israeli security.
“We have had to kill Palestinians to establish one authority, one gun and the rule of law”, PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told US deputy Middle East envoy David Hale in 2009. “We continue to perform our obligations. We have invested time and effort and killed our own people to maintain order and the rule of law.”
The PA has facilitated the creation of a narrow layer of Palestinian capitalists who have grown rich in the Gulf states and across the Arab world. Through the monopolisation of government contracts for goods such as cement, steel, petrol, flour and cigarettes, as well as exclusive import permits and custom exemptions, sole rights to distribute goods in the West Bank and distributing government-owned land below its value, this Palestinian capitalist class has been the main beneficiary of the state-assisted “aid” funded by foreign donors.
Under Arafat’s successor, multimillionaire and hand-picked stooge of US imperialism Mahmoud Abbas, the PA has worked with Israel and the West to crush its main rival, Hamas. This has included a partially successful coup, backed by Israel, the US and the EU, to overturn the 2006 election results, when Hamas won unexpected control of most urban councils and a substantial majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Abbas seized power in the West Bank, but Hamas regained control of the Gaza strip through force. Abbas, whose mandate expired in 2009, has since then dismantled all elected bodies and now rules by decree.
The Fatah leadership of the PA has also collaborated with Israel in the collective punishment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The “Palestine Papers”—a collection of classified documents about the “peace process” leaked to Al Jazeera and published in 2011—reveal that PA officials were informed in advance of the 2008-9 Israeli invasion of Gaza, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.
PA officials several times urged the Israelis to tighten their grip on the strip, which has subjected more than 2 million Palestinians to hunger and misery. In response to the revelations, a Hamas spokesman remarked at the time: “The men of Fatah who created the Palestinian Authority represent nothing but a betrayal of the interests of the Palestinian people”.
But the signing of Oslo and the establishment of the PA were not merely a case of Fatah and the PLO “selling out”. It expressed the limitations of their political strategy for Palestinian liberation.
While the PLO (founded by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s in an effort to contain and control Palestinian political activity under the banner of the unification of the Arab world) and Fatah (which became the dominant faction in the PLO after the defeat of Nasser in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war) initially championed the liberation of the entirety of historic Palestine, their politics were always class-collaborationist and substituted armed struggle for mass mobilisation. Fatah and the PLO looked to the Arab ruling classes, and not the working classes, as the forces that could be enlisted in the struggle to liberate Palestine.
The PLO conducted operations within Arab countries whose ruling classes were suspicious of, and often hostile to, the revolutionary potential of the Palestinian struggle—in particular the effect it could have on their own working classes. This meant adopting a strategy that argued the liberation of Palestine did not require changes in the economic, social and political structures of the Arab world, and limiting demands to what the Arab ruling classes deemed acceptable. But the reactionary oil-producing Gulf states, from which the PLO received funding, together with Jordan, where the PLO was based until 1970, were just as much a part of the Western-backed regional order as their counterparts in Israel.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Israel exploited this policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of Arab states and inflicted a series of devastating defeats on the PLO. The result was Fatah and the PLO’s abandonment of the goal of the liberation of all of Palestine and the limitation of its demands to a Palestinian mini-state in the occupied territories.
Today, a security wall and a system of road networks, checkpoints and a plethora of other obstacles restricting the movement of Palestinians have carved up the West Bank’s towns and villages into an archipelago of non-contiguous Bantustans.
This has been combined with an intensification of settler violence and military raids under Netanyahu’s far-right government. According to United Nations figures, 218 Palestinians in Area C have been forcibly displaced as a result of demolitions since the beginning of this year, and a further 200 have had their homes demolished in East Jerusalem. This has taken place alongside an increase in violence committed by the Israeli military—34 Palestinian youths were murdered in the West Bank in the first several months of 2023, according to Human Rights Watch.
Israel’s war on Gaza is accelerating these processes: more than 100 Palestinians have been killed, mostly in altercations with the Israeli military, since the start of the war. This has included a number of raids, such as that which took place at the Nour Shams refugee camp and resulted in the deaths of 13 Palestinians, including five children under the age of 15. More than 1,500 Palestinians have been arrested by Israeli security forces in the West Bank since 7 October.
In recent years, the PA has also faced resistance from public sector workers, in particular teachers, over wages. During the previous school year, teachers led a 57-day strike that ended with an agreement signed by PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in which he agreed to raise teacher salaries by 15 percent and establish an independent and democratic teachers’ committee. (Neither has yet come to fruition.) Palestinian public teachers’ protests since 2016 have been described as Palestine’s most significant social movement in decades. Currently, some 54,000 Palestinian teachers work in the public education sector.
These strikes have taken place against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis caused in no small part by Israel’s punitive measures against the PA. Chief among these is a law passed in 2018 to withhold half a billion shekels (around $140 million) each year from the taxes Israel collects and transfers to the PA in compliance with the Oslo Accords, due to the PA’s financial support for the families of those held in Israeli prisons. Earlier this year, Netanyahu’s far-right government further crippled the authority when it decided to deduct an additional 50 million shekels (more than $US14 million) each month from the tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, among other punitive measures.
Israel’s war in Gaza has also intensified the crisis of legitimacy facing the PA. After the Israeli bombing of Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, protests erupted throughout cities across the PA-controlled West Bank, including Nablus, Tubas and Jenin, a northern city that was the focus of extensive Israeli military operations earlier this year. In Ramallah (the administrative centre of the PA) crowds threw rocks at police cars near Manara square and chanted the slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people want the fall of the regime!”
The response of the PA has been to mobilise the armed forces at its disposal, firing tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and live ammunition at protests. In Jenin, a 12-year-old Palestinian schoolgirl was killed when PA security forces used live ammunition to crush the protests.
Any serious challenge to Israeli apartheid in the West Bank will require standing up to, and ultimately overthrowing, the Palestinian Authority. And that will mean breaking with the class-collaborationist politics of the PLO and Fatah that led the Palestinian struggle into this disaster.
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